Kamala Harris Inspires Me With Her Beauty and Power
In 2013, President Barack Obama apologized for referring to our new Vice President Kamala Harris as “by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.”
At the time, Harris was Attorney General of California, and President Obama’s initial comment triggered passionate discussion nationwide. Most talk was critical of what he said, but there were also a significant number of voices expressing that his comment about Harris’ physical appearance wasn’t worthy of retraction or mea culpa.
Simultaneously and right up to today, women—Black and brown women, in particular—praise former First Lady Michelle Obama’s beauty, poise, and fashion sense, in addition to her intellectual muscle and oratorial impact.
And more recently, Representative Ayana Pressley was roundly praised for stepping out from under her wigs and into the spotlight with a fully shaved head after battling the shame of hair loss as a result of alopecia. Her bravery was celebrated in the same breath that people observed how “beautiful” she looked in her new look.
We all pay attention to appearance, whether we acknowledge it or not. And in fact, research demonstrates that there are societal advantages associated with beauty.
Did you know that the field of pulchronomics examines the economics of physical attractiveness? In reality, great beauty comes with great privileges—making it easier to make money, and helping to leverage career advancement.
It is a human bias that is often not conscious. According to research, children and adults alike unconsciously favor attractive children over unattractive ones.
Attractive people are also automatically perceived to be smarter, healthier, nicer, more confident, more trustworthy, and more capable than others—not because of any explicit social prejudice, but because of deeply embedded and unconscious dispositions.
So thinking back to President Obama's statement on Harris' good looks, why was any apology necessary? I mean, objectively, by traditional Western standards, Kamala Harris is a beautiful woman and stays put together. Her balanced features and brown skin are highlighted by hue-appropriate foundation, subtle eye make-up, and perfectly applied lip color. She appears impeccable even under harsh studio lights.
Black, brown, and little girls of every shade are excited by Kamala Harris’ confidence, success, effectiveness, impact, warmth, and, yes, beauty. And it is worth noting that cosmetics for Black and other people of color have come a long way.
Beautiful like my mom
At 14, my mother and grandmother—my co-parents—agreed that I could wear just a little touch of blush. It seems so silly now, but I yearned to apply “all the make-up” so that I would be beautiful like my mom.
For years, I sat with her in the bathroom every morning as she applied her make-up in the mirror before embarking on her long workday. I studied every move. And since I turned 14 in the late '70s, there were almost no easily accessible cosmetic companies that catered to skin tones darker than pale; Fashion Fair was the exception.
But I only had drugstore money. So, my first blush was a kind of bright pink, mango colored, cakey-creme concoction that I purchased myself with saved up allowance money. And although I had the good sense to apply the exuberantly colored blush lightly, it sat atop my deep brown complexion like the theatrical red grease paint on Alan Cumming’s cheeks in Cabaret. The natural skin-matching cosmetics that Harris presents would have been unfathomable to me when I was growing up.
Embodying beauty & power
As a culture, we are conflicted. Is it improper to say out loud what many of us are thinking when we look at people? We can talk about “presence,” “manner,” “impression,” but not physical attributes?
Perhaps that’s why ‘Saturday Night Live’ has America chuckling with Maya Rudolph’s laugh-out-loud portrayal of Kamala Harris as someone so glamorous that she appears only with a soft light filtered lens and wind machine blowing full tilt. We in the audience laugh at Maya Rudolph—and we may also be laughing at ourselves.
To see Black women who embody both beauty and power is invigorating, inspiring, and expands the possibilities that many imagine for themselves. Is talking about the beauty of powerful women reductive, or is ignoring what is apparent twisting ourselves into knots of virtue signaling?